Navigating the system: Indianapolis
With so much school choice, Indy can be overwhelming. Learn how one parent sifted through the options to pick the best school for her children – and how you can, too.
Learn more on what to look for when touring schools in these videos:
Video: How to find a middle school
Video: A guide to private schools
By Benjamin Skirvin
Finding a good school in Indianapolis has never been more difficult — or more possible. With all the competing options — a whooping 11 public school districts and a healthy offering of charter and private schools — longtime Indianapolis resident and mother of two Kelly Dunn says getting her children into a quality school is a matter of understanding, and then winnowing down, the daunting number of competing options. For Dunn, the biggest challenge was working past the hype to find the best school for her children.
School choice in Indianapolis has experienced a sea change. The result is a huge increase in the options for parents looking to enroll their children in the city’s top schools. In the last 10 years, 31 new charter schools have opened. (See a complete list of charter schools in the state, compiled by the Indiana Office of Charter Schools, including the 31 opened in Indianapolis in the past 10 years.) During that same time, the Indianapolis Public School district (IPS) has opened a slew of alternative and magnet schools. Most recently, school voucher legislation has cracked open the once exclusive doors of private education. Aware of all these competing options, Dunn readied herself for a challenging school search.
Considering private schools before public schools
Starting her search with private schools was an unusual decision for Dunn. Historically, the Dunn family chooses public schools. “My husband and I attended IPS schools and we had good experiences,” Dunn says. But Dunn and her husband, who are Catholic, considered their local parish school first. They had good reason.
Private schools have long been considered the city’s elite in terms of both quality and cost. There are several private schools in Indianapolis with average standardized test scores in the upper 90th percentile and four year graduation rates nearing 100 percent. According to the Indiana Department of Education, 98 percent of private schools in Indianapolis are Christian. Most are connected to a church and parishioners are often given preference when applying.
“We really liked the community aspect of things when it comes to private schools,” Dunn says. “That is the biggest reason we looked at private school in the first place.”
Unfortunately, attending a private school can prove expensive. The Oaks Academy (a non-denominational Christian school) starts at $8,600 per year, although there can be substantial tuition discounts when attending a school connected with your church. Tuition at Christ the King Catholic School, for example, drops from about $6,500 per year to a much more manageable $1,500 per year for active church members.
But the state’s fledgling school voucher program, which launched in 2011, is a workaround for some families. Parents who meet income limits are eligible (Check your eligibility here.) to receive tuition assistance of up to $6,600 that can be used to send their kids to private school. However, there are several factors to be aware of when looking into the voucher program:
• Students must attend at least one full year at a public school, so kindergartners are not eligible.
• Not all private schools have agreed to accept school vouchers, so ask the school you’re interested in if they accept them.
• The number of vouchers is limited, so apply early.
There are 15,000 vouchers available for the 2012-2013 school year. When the state’s education department offered the program in 2011-2012, half of the 7,500 vouchers were gone within three months.
“There are a lot of ways to get a good deal at a private school and it was something we wrestled with,” Dunn says. Despite some attractive options, the private schools she liked are further away from home than she likes. So Dunn continued her search for the right fit.